The Spanish use of Animals as Weapons of War
Imagine you are a people hardened in battle, with a pugnacious martial code built up through two centuries of continuous warfare with your neighbors.
You are a people accustomed to victory because your numbers, your discipline, your capacity for cruelty, your focus, your sheer will for power, are greater than those of any of the tribes whom you have systematically conquered and abased – tribes whom you prey on for human sacrifices to offer up to your gods and whom you ruthlessly exploit for tribute and slaves. It is not that these neighbors of yours are particularly weak – on the contrary, some who still resist you are skilled fighters. It is just that you are so strong, so skilled, so cunning, so relentless and – above all – so beloved of the gods whom you continually flatter, entertain and nourish with festivals of spectacular cruelty. Who will ever forget the inauguration of the Great Pyramid in your capital city Tenochtitlan when, over four days, the hearts of 80,000 men, women and children were cut out and the streets ran knee-deep in tides of blood? Who could not fail to be awed by the pleasure you take in flaying your victims and dressing up in their skins even as you consume their tender thigh meat with chilies and beans? How else, other than by such techniques of staged – indeed theatrical – terrorism, is it possible to explain your incredible rise to power from a lowly tribe of wandering nomads just two hundred years ago to masters of all you survey today?
You have, perhaps, become somewhat arrogant, somewhat boastful, but who can blame you for that when you can put an army of 200,000 men into the field organised into highly trained regiments called xiquipilli (pronounced shikipilli) each 8000 strong. You use very little metal other than for ornamental items of soft copper. Your priest-king Moctezuma owns a sacred dagger of meteoritic iron but for the most part your weapons, like the weapons of your neighbors, are of stone and wood – flint knives, spears, javelins, maces, war-clubs and mahogany broadswords called maquahuitls into the edges of which are set rows of obsidian blades so sharp they are capable of decapitating a man at a single blow. You do not have guns – you do not even know what guns are yet – but you have tens of thousands of archers skilled in the use of the bow and arrow and divisions of highly-trained specialists wielding lethal atlatls, spear throwers that project clouds of fire-hardened darts over distances of a thousand feet or more.
This was the position of the Aztecs – a position of absolute power and supreme confidence – when the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in February 1519 with his small fleet of eleven ships and just 490 soldiers. For the most part, young men of humble birth under twenty-five years of age, many freshly out from Spain, these soldiers had volunteered for this seemingly crazy expedition against numberless foes in the hopes of making their fortunes.
Their prospects, from the start, were brighter than the sheer disparity of numbers might suggest. Spain in 1519 was a nation vastly more experienced in war and far more deeply inured to its terrors than were the Aztecs. Less than thirty years previously, in 1492 – the same year that Columbus crossed the Atlantic to establish the first European settlements on the islands of the Gulf of Mexico – Spain had completed the reconquest of its territories (with the fall of the city of Granada) after seven hundred years of continuous warfare against the Moors. And since then there had been numerous other wars in which young men could blood themselves – in Italy where Spain, now in an expansionist mood after driving out the Moors, was heavily engaged and in Hispaniola and Cuba where the native populations had been subjected to the most horrific and merciless genocide.
More than experience, however, the Spanish forces benefited from a scientific approach to warfare that had, for the Aztecs, always been primarily a ritualistic pursuit. Whereas Spanish discipline, tactics and strategy were geared to the annihilation and mass murder of the enemy on the battlefield, the Aztecs were much more interested in capturing enemy combatants alive and dragging them off to be imprisoned and fattened for later sacrifice. In the gigantic battles that were to come the tendency of the Aztecs to try to take living prisoners, and the tactics this required, put them at a great disadvantage against the Spanish whose focus was simply to kill as many of the enemy on the spot as swiftly as possible.
Furthermore in pursuing this single-minded objective the Spaniards had many advantages that were completely unavailable to the Aztecs. The accounts of the conquistadors such as the stoical Bernal Diaz leave no doubt of the vast superiority of Spanish swords of good Toledo steel over the wood and stone weapons of their opponents. Steel-tipped spears and pikes, steel battle-axes, steel daggers all worked terrible slaughter upon the foe. The Spanish crossbows were much more effective killing machines than the simple bows and arrows of the Aztecs. And, of course, that Spaniards had guns – the muskets known as arquebuses, small cannon such as falconets, and larger siege cannon called lombards. In the first battles the Aztecs were utterly discomfited and terrified by Spanish muskets and artillery that they took to be xihucoatl, “fire serpents”, the legendary weapons of the gods themselves.
I will devote a future article to this subject of the weapons, armour and military tactics that contributed so much to the ultimate Spanish victory. Here, however, I want to focus on something else – something completely unexpected and utterly alien to the Aztecs that, perhaps more than any other single factor caused them to lose their boastful self-confidence after years of easy victories over their neighbors and enter into a gloomy state of demoralization and psychological vulnerability. This was the Spanish deployment of animals – horses and war dogs – on the battlefield.
The Aztecs had dogs. They were small, hairless, timid creatures, related to the modern Chihuahua, which were reared not as pets but as a food source. Accordingly when the Aztecs first met the Spanish war dogs – wolfhounds, greyhounds, lurchers, pit bulls and gigantic mastiffs similar to modern Rottweilers, they had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with. Indeed they did not think these animals were dogs at all. They thought they might be some species of dragon – an impression compounded by the fact that the Spanish dogs were armored in chainmail and steel plate like their masters and were thus almost invulnerable to stone weapons. Fasted before battle so they were in a state of voracious, slavering hunger, trained to fight and kill with the utmost ferocity, these terrifying animals already relished human flesh having been used repeatedly in acts of genocide against the Indians of Hispaniola and Cuba. Unleashed in snarling, baying packs, their tongues lolling, drool dripping from their fangs and sparks of fire seeming – in the imagination of the victims – to flash from their eyes, they tore into the Aztec front lines with devastating effect, disemboweling men, ripping out their throats, feasting on their soft, unarmored bodies. “They have flat ears and are spotted like ocelots,” reported one Aztec eyewitness of the Spanish war dogs. “They have great dragging jowls and fangs like daggers and blazing eyes of burning yellow that flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are gaunt, their flanks long and lean with the ribs showing. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, their tongues dripping venom.”
The second war animal of the Spanish, even more devastating than the dogs, was the horse. Horses, all of course imported from Europe, were scarce in the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba in 1519 and were very expensive. Cortes (himself an expert horseman) was thus only able to acquire sixteen of them for the conquest. This small cavalry corps, however, was to prove decisive, again and again saving the day when the tiny Spanish army was surrounded and faced imminent destruction at the hands of overwhelming numbers of foes.
The last horses of the Americas had been extinct for more than twelve thousand years in 1519, so the horse was a completely unknown animal to the Aztecs. The closest creature they could compare it to was the deer but there were no deer in Mexico anywhere near the size of the massive destriers the Spanish rode into battle. Moreover the very idea of men transported on the backs of animals was new and outlandish to the Aztecs – so outlandish, in fact, that when the cavalry were first sighted they were taken to be supernatural creatures, part beast, part man, and not of this earth. And again, as with the war dogs, this impression was enhanced by the gleaming metal armor – barding – that the horses wore and that made them, seemingly, impossible to kill.
More important, however, was the fact that European armies had spent thousands of years learning to withstand charges of heavy horse and developing effective counter-tactics. The Aztecs had no such experience and were utterly dismayed and confounded as the Spanish cavalry bore down upon them at close to thirty miles an hour, lances aimed at their faces, the ground thundering and shaking. Then came the hideous shock and clamor of the impact, the huge war animals snorting and neighing and trampling men under their iron-shod hooves, and the Aztec ranks reeled, parted and broke in terrorized confusion running in all directions only to be cut down by the lances and flashing cavalry sabers of the riders.
The effect of these cavalry charges cannot be overstated. Combined with the horror of the packs of savage dogs scything through the Aztec formations, they gave the Spaniards crucial and unique advantages in battle. A new form of warfare had come to the Americas. Things would never be the same again.
For me as a writer, imaginatively inhabiting these scenes, putting myself in the place of the Aztec and Spanish combatants, trying to feel what they felt and to see what they saw, represented an exciting and complex challenge. But it underlined why I have started to write novels and what I hope I have achieved in War God . The fictional approach allows me to explore history in an entirely new way, not simply with the array of facts that are fundamental to non-fiction (though there are plenty of facts in my novel) but with due space given to emotions, to feelings, to sensations, to the smell and taste and touch of the moment, and to the crucial aspect of character. Had I approached historical figures like Cortes, or his extraordinary and courageous native American lover Malinal, or the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, from the perspective of non-fiction I would have never been able to get “inside their heads” in the way this novel has allowed me to do or to work towards such an in-depth understanding of their motives, their behavior and their reactions to one another as fellow humans caught up in utterly remarkable events.
More information about War God here.